What Is the Punishment for Joyriding?

Joyriding is usually a misdemeanor, but in some situations it can be charged as a felony.

Two teens sneak into a garage late at night. They push the vehicle – a beautiful sports car belonging to one of their parents – out of the garage and down the driveway without turning it on. Once away from the house, they start the engine, hop in, and drive away into the night. Hilarious antics ensue. Joyriding – taking or driving someone else’s car without permission – is often depicted in film or on television as a youthful rite of passage. But joyriding, also called unauthorized use of a vehicle, is a crime, and a conviction can land you in jail or prison.

The classic example of joyriding is a child who takes a parent’s car out for the evening without permission. But joyriding can also be committed by strangers, or by people – such as mechanics or valets – who have access to vehicles for one purpose but use the cars for some other purpose. The offense of joyriding is usually, although not always, a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in county or local jail and a fine.

For more information on how joyriding is defined, see What is the Difference Between Joyriding and Stealing a Car?

Joyriding Laws

Joyriding has been around for almost as long as there have been automobiles. When automobiles were first available, they were considered an unusual, luxury item. People who did not own their own vehicles would sometimes take a car out for a spin just to see what it was like to drive one. In order to differentiate these “joyriders” – who intended to drive the car, but not keep it – from thieves, the first joyriding laws were enacted. Recognizing that a person who goes joyriding is usually less culpable and often less sophisticated than a thief, most state lawmakers classify joyriding as a less serious offense than theft, and one that is punished less severely.

States define joyriding differently. In some states, joyriding is driving a car without permission. In other states, joyriding is driving a car with the intent to temporarily deprive the owner of the car. In contrast, theft is taking a car with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of it. For more information on theft, see Grand Theft Auto. Unlike the thief, the joyrider takes the car with the intent to bring it back.

In some states, such as Mississippi, motor vehicle theft is broadly defined as any unauthorized use of a vehicle and it is a felony. Joyriding prosecutions in Mississippi are reserved for circumstances (such as a child taking a parent’s car) in which a felony prosecution would be too harsh. For more information, see Auto Theft Laws in Mississippi.

More Serious Joyriding Offenses

In some circumstances, joyriding may be punished more severely, sometimes even as a felony (a crime punishable by time in state prison, rather than county or local jail). Although state laws vary, joyriding may be punished more severely if:

  • the defendant fails to return the car for a significant period of time (such as more than 48 hours)
  • the defendant intends to use the car to commit a crime, or
  • the defendant damages the car.

Possible Penalties

  • Probation. Oftentimes, judges in joyriding cases will sentence the defendant to probation (a period of court-ordered supervision). A person on probation may have to check in with a probation officer regularly, follow a curfew, or submit to drug testing for the entire period of probation, which can be for six months, a year, or longer.
  • Community service. Judges may also impose hours of community service, such as picking up trash on roadways or volunteering with local charity organizations.
  • Time in jail or prison. As explained, joyriding is usually punishable by up to one year in jail, but more serious joyriding offenses can be punishable by up to three years in prison.
  • Fines. Fines vary depending on state law and can range from $100 or less to thousands of dollars.
  • Restitution. The court can order a defendant convicted of joyriding to pay restitution (repayment) to any victims who suffer financial losses as a result of the crime. Financial losses could include damage to the car or even the medical bills of a person injured in an accident caused by the joyrider.
  • Suspended driver’s license. In some states, people who are convicted of joyriding may have their driver’s licenses suspended or revoked.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you are charged with joyriding, or any other criminal offense, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney can explain the law in your state, investigate your case, and help you protect your rights and obtain the best possible outcome.

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